'Tis The Season To Purge

By Sara Vigneri

A winter chill is in the air but I’m sweating through my shirt. I’ve lugged all my children’s clothing from the basement and have begun the process of sorting and sifting. Whenever the seasons change, I find myself taking stock of the stuff that has found residence in my home: clothes from last season, toys that are no longer used, impulse purchases, projects I promised myself I would begin (but still haven’t). As the weather gets colder and I spend more time indoors, I find that the nesting instinct kicks in and I begin to purge my house of excess stuff in the hopes of reaching nirvana. Every box dropped off at Goodwill, every item sold on Craigslist, every carload of stuff sent to the recycling center brings me closer to the promised land of Minimalism.

When I close my eyes and visualize my dream home, I see a crisp white kitchen with nothing on the counter tops. Modern furnishings inhabit a sparsely decorated home, devoid of toys, collections, picture frames and books. My dream home is essentially a house with barely anything in it. I imagine a house that contains the essentials needed to be comfortable and nothing else. Of course, that vision is a far cry from my reality. My actual home is filled with stuff. My stuff, my kids’ stuff, my husband’s stuff and endless amounts of other people’s stuff that somehow finds its way into my house.

Take for example the mounds of papers that my children bring home in their backpacks. Their A+ tests that they want me to proudly display, their endless drawings and dioramas that I couldn’t possibly throw away (while they are looking), the stories they’ve written–all this gets put into piles. As the school year progresses, those piles grow and grow. Eventually, my children don’t even remember what is in the piles. That’s when I begin the process of sorting through the stuff, salvaging the truly exceptional works, and put everything else in the shredder to completely eliminate the evidence of my purging. (I learned the shredder trick years ago when, after a purge, my children happened to look through the recycling bin in horror and asked: “Why are you throwing all my stuff away?” Now, they only see shreds of non-descript paper and have no idea what I’m doing.)

I have to admit, one of the worst things that ever happened to me was discovering the television show Hoarders. I watched in horror as a team of people helped dig compulsive hoarders out of homes that had become so overrun with stuff they could no longer live safely within. The images of rooms piled floor to ceiling with stuff was etched into my brain and in a panic-filled fury I tore through my house, removing stuff as if the producers of the show were putting me on standby. The show flipped a switch in my mind’s eye so that everywhere I looked I saw piles of stuff threatening to multiply and overtake me. I have since banned myself from ever watching that show again, but it hasn’t really abated my need to purge stuff from my home.

And while I fantasize about living the life of a minimalist, I think I would miss having stuff, if only because I enjoy that cathartic process of purging. It gives me a serene sense of accomplishment. It’s like those before and after pictures they post on home decorating websites – the before picture is often a heavily cluttered room with a disorganized mess of stuff. The after picture shows the room with everything taken out of it. Of course, the walls have been painted and they added new furniture, but the drama is in the absence of the stuff. The before picture might show a bookshelf filled with chaotically arranged books of different shapes and colors while the after picture inevitably shows the bookshelf mostly devoid of its contents. Voila! Transformation is accomplished! It’s that dramatic shift of cluttered mess to spartan minimalism that attracts me to those before and after pictures. And it compels me to clear out my bookcases and closets. I get a wonderfully satisfying feeling when I manage to extract a car full of stuff from my house – it’s like I’ve won the battle against the stuff.

Of course, once January rolls around and the sales racks beckon me with their tantalizing 75% off stickers, I inevitably bring new stuff into the house. And the kids go back to school and the papers start piling up again. And my daughter grows a few sizes and new clothes are ushered into her closet. I allow the stuff back into my house, but I smugly make a pact to myself that the stuff will never get the best of me. Stuff may enter my home, but its residence there is not guaranteed. It can be thrown out or given away at a moment’s notice once I’ve seen that it has outgrown its usefulness. So my relationship with stuff may seem complicated, but it is actually quite simple–stuff is welcome in my life on a temporary basis and when I find that I can no longer live with the stuff I will relish the task of removing it from my home. And at the end of a satisfying day of purging the stuff from my house, I will close my eyes and fantasize about the white kitchen with the empty countertops.

Sara Vigneri, an experienced health journalist, has stopped living in fear that her home will ever appear on an episode of Hoarders.

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